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The Employment Relations Authority (ERA) has knocked-back an attempt by one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s largest universities to axe more than 100 staff.

The Auckland University of Technology planned to make 170 academic staff redundant, but the ERA has now ruled that its process was flawed and breached the collective agreement.

Now the school may need to walk back its dismissals, and start all over again.

ERA said AUT had called for voluntary redundancies too early, before the institution had even decided which positions to cull.

The Tertiary Education Union (TEU) is celebrating the ruling as a win. However, AUT says the union and the university have interpreted the decision differently and it would be seeking clarification.

Lawyer Peter Cranney, in an email to members of the TEU yesterday, said the ERA was considering a compliance order that would require AUT to withdraw all the notices it had already issued.

“Although a compliance order is discretionary, the [ERA] authority has indicated it will not decline the granting of the order it needed,” he wrote.

“The parties will now have three days to consider the matter; and if a compliance order is necessary, the AUT will need to comply within five days.”

Cranney said any compliance order would be issued by Friday.

Trust difficult to rebuild, says union organiser
TEU organiser Jill Jones said the decision meant people at risk of losing their jobs no longer were.

“It’s great because what it does show is our collective agreement has been respected by the Employment Relations Authority,” Jones told RNZ Morning Report.

But although staff members were “absolutely” thrilled with the decision of the ERA, there was a breakdown of trust with their employer and it would be difficult to rebuild it.

“Its been a long, hard road for these staff members. They’ve paid a very large price.

“These are members that really, really care about their students and the high price that they’ve paid for this bungled redundancy is that lots of things have happened.

“It’s felt as if, to them, it’s been a very callous and uncaring process and it’s going to be difficult to come back from that.”

With issues of trust and many staff feeling targeted and bullied, AUT had a “very big job” ahead to rebuild that trust, she said.

Frances* was one of the unlucky 170 to receive a redundancy letter.

“This level of disruption and instability in our lives is just crippling,” she said.

The ERA decision had not brought much comfort.

“It’s kind of a double-edged sword,” she said. “I’m really happy that we’ve seen some justice be recognised through the court system, but I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

Frances expected AUT to withdraw her notice of dismissal, but did not expect a happy ending.

“I’m not deluded, they’re still going to come for me I’m sure, but they’ll have to start from scratch and do it properly,” she said.

“That’s all we ask, that this is done properly.”

Poor handling of the situation had destroyed staff morale, she said.

“For three months, I’ve been feeling disengaged, demotivated, angry, upset, waiting, waiting, waiting for this letter,” she said.

“This whole process has been about targeting, humiliating, and bullying people.”

AUT seeks clarification of ‘complex findings’
An AUT spokesperson said the findings were legally complex and it regretted that a “procedural issue” highlighted had made staff more uncertain.

“Although the ERA has published its findings, it has not issued orders.

“AUT’s view of these findings differs from that of the TEU. AUT is endeavouring to clarify and resolve the issue promptly.

“Given the differing views between the parties it will therefore be necessary to return to the ERA tomorrow for clarification on some aspects.”

AUT said ERA’s findings found no bad faith in how it had acted — and AUT had formed a differing view of the collective agreement.

“The ERA has noted that AUT should have identified the specific positions potentially declared surplus and, at this point, written to offer voluntary redundancy to the people in these specified positions.

“Following clarification of the procedural issue we will write to those impacted by the decision to confirm the way forward.”

* Name changed to protect identity. This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ. 

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